A long time ago, I was a journalist working with a team of people from all over the world and I felt pretty fucking special and amazing.
We got paid every week in cash, huge wads of R200 notes carefully counted, stacked and packed into brown paper bags.
See, what we were doing wasn’t exactly legal. It would bore the hell out of me to have to explain it as I’ve probably told this story a hundred times, so instead I want you to think of the scene in Fight Club where they’re in the boutique store selling soap.
The narrator says something about how all they’re doing is selling rich people their fat asses back to them – we were doing the same thing, only in an editorial sense with neat, official rate cards with prices printed in Euros.
You want a page of advertising in our report? That’ll be eighty-fucking-nine thousand Euros please.
I know what it feels like to be escorted out of someone’s office by security. I also know what it feels like to lie to mayors, ministers and high-powered CEOs right to their smug little faces instead of the other way around.
You’d be surprised how easy it is – 70% of winning people over is looking the part, get that right and with enough important-sounding smarmy banter you can bullshit your way into anything.
That’s how I landed the interview with Alan Knott-Craig, who was the then CEO of Vodacom. A phone call here, an official-looking series of faxes and emails there and then next thing I knew, I was waltzing into his offices with my Hawaiian team-mate Steven, both of us dressed to the nines in expensive business suits and leather shoes polished until they looked like black mirrors.
I wore a fucking tie. I had a fucking briefcase. I was 22 years old.
For the record, old Alan had the hottest PA I’ve ever seen in my life. That woman was hot enough to melt tar, fahk. It’s a smart move because before you’ve even met the man you already have this grudging respect for him whether you’re conscious of it or not.
Understandably, I was more than a little nervous and had asked Steven, 12 years my senior, which interview question of the ones I’d drafted I should start with.
‘None of them,’ he replied.
‘What?’ I said.
‘Dude, you look like a kid fresh outta college.’
‘I am a kid fresh outta college.’
‘Yeah, so you’ve got to earn the man’s respect or he’s never going to take you seriously. Start with a difficult question, show him you’re not afraid of him.’
‘Ask him why Vodacom’s cell phone rates in South Africa are so much more expensive than other places in the world.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘You don’t think that’s going to piss him off?’
‘Trust me, after that he’ll know we aren’t fucking around and after that, he’ll buy some advertising in the report.’
‘Cool. Ok, I’ll do it.’
He’s a tall guy, ol’ Alan. Big hands. Exudes unwavering confidence and is direct to the point of almost coming across as rude.
None of this helped my nerves. We all sat down and I opened my briefcase with trembling hands as he sat there, calm as a cat with its claw through a mouse’s tail.
‘So Mr Knott-Craig,’ I stammered once I was set up and ready to go.
‘Call me Alan,’ he replied.
‘Alan. Why are Vodacom’s rates so much more expensive than other places in the world?’
And good old Alan, good old Mr Knott-Craig, I’ll never forget his response as long as I live. Me, a skinny kid out of college no idea what the hell I was doing, and him, one of the most influential men in South Africa, the chief executive officer of an empire.
He stared straight at me with a look that could weld steel and said one word.
Which is exactly what I did.
And that’s why when I grow up I want to be Alan Knott-Craig, what a fucking badass.